Many of the passengers aboard the Thursday flight from Portland, Maine, to Philadelphia were already asleep, and the flight attendant had made his way to row 9 with drinks when Michael J. Ensalaco stood up, walked to the cabin door, kneeled down and pulled on the door’s handle, according to a witness.
“He seemed confused, a bit disoriented,’’ said Patricia Brugnoni, who was seated near Ensalaco on US Airways Flight 3801. “. . . I’m a nurse, and something just didn’t seem right with him.’’
She said she immediately called for the flight attendant, who ran up the aisle and confronted Ensalaco.
Brugnoni, of Geneseo, N.Y., said Ensalaco drew back a blue curtain that was covering the cabin door before pulling on the handle, causing it to make a “clicking noise.’’ After he got up from his knees, he “tried the handle a second time,’’ she said, but it did not open.
US Airways said Friday that it is not possible to open the cabin door while in flight “due to the pressurization loads on the door latching mechanisms.’’
Authorities said Ensalaco’s alleged actions forced the crew to divert the jet to Logan Airport. He was arraigned Friday in East Boston District Court on a charge of interfering with aircraft operation.
Attorney Michael Natola said moments after the arraignment that his client has “post-seizure syndrome, in which he has disassociation, confusion, and doesn’t remember what he does.
“He told the flight attendant that he was going to the bathroom; he was clearly confused,’’ Natola said.
He added that symptoms of the neurological disorder, which his client has suffered from since 2004, are a lot like sleepwalking. Ensalaco remembers being on the aircraft, but at some point during the flight blacked out and next remembers sitting in the back seat of a State Police cruiser after he was taken into custody, Natola said.
Brugnoni said that while Ensalaco appeared wide awake, it was clear he was confused. “I don’t think he did anything on purpose, but he sure put a lot of lives in danger,’’ she said.
An official with Air Wisconsin said Friday that the airplane’s manufacturer, Bombardier, has confirmed that “it is not possible to open the passenger door in flight due to the pressurization loads on the door-latching mechanisms.’’
Ensalaco, 41, of Mooresville, N.C., was released on $500 cash bail.
Judge Robert Ronquillo also ordered Ensalaco to follow through with his neurologist and continue to take any prescribed medication. Ensalaco has had infrequent occurrences of the disorder in recent years, his lawyer said. He will probably return home within a day or two, Natola said. His client is due back in court June 22 for a pretrial hearing.
Ensalaco’s mother-in-law answered the phone at his home in North Carolina Friday afternoon, but declined to speak, referring all calls to Natola. On Thursday, Aimee Downing, Ensalaco’s North Carolina neighbor who said she was acting as the family’s representative, said Ensalaco is prone to seizures, and his family is confident the charge will be dropped.
Natola said Ensalaco has no criminal record and has worked for the Jon Morris and Co. of Canton, a wholesale food and beverage broker, for 10 years, heading their North Carolina office. Ensalaco has been married for 17 years and has five children, including a set of triplets.
“I’m confident we’re going to reach a resolution of this case that is going to be satisfactory to everybody,’’ Natola said. “When the dust settles, it’s going to be seen for what it was, namely a medical event and not a criminal act.’’
Brugnoni said the incident did not cause panic among the passengers. She said the attendant walked with Ensalaco to the back of the plane; he switched seats with a passenger there.
The pilot then advised passengers that the flight was being diverted to Boston. The plane landed at 4:36 p.m. Thursday.
In the past decade, there have been at least a dozen similar cases on flights headed to, departing from, or diverted to Logan Airport, according to court records. The last incident involved an Arlington man, who in May 2011 pressed a button on an emergency exit door while on a flight from Orlando to Boston.
Brugnoni said she was relieved that Thursday’s drama ended peacefully. “Overall, the passengers were just happy to be alive,’’ she said. “No one likes to be late, but many of us just took a deep breath after we landed and were thankful that it didn’t turn out worse.’’